Why Don’t Political Ads About Disability Have Captions?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written about disability and representation in two political ads by the biggest pro-Clinton Super PAC — Priorities USA. Both ads critique Trump for mocking a disabled reporter, a condemnation with which I agree, but I thought the ad “Grace” relied on troubling stereotypes, whereas “Dante” did a good job empowering a disabled young man to speak for himself.

Since those ads went live, however, many Deaf and hard of hearing readers have reached out to me to point out that neither of these ads are captioned. You can use auto-caption to generate text on YouTube, but that’s not the same thing as Priorities USA specifically making sure their ads are accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing individuals by either building captions or subtitles into the ads or releasing a separate, captioned version. YouTube automated captions are not accurate enough to be ADA compliant; adding better captions isn’t very hard.

When politicians or political action groups talk about disability — which they should all do — but don’t caption their materials, have no ASL interpretation at live events, and otherwise fail to take basic steps to assure accessibility for a predictable spectrum of diverse needs, two things happen. First, peoples’ needs aren’t met, denying them access to a political message. Second, they signal that they want to use sympathy for disabled people as a way to get votes without paying attention to disabled people themselves. It’s a form of tokenism.

Neither “Dante” nor “Grace” are captioned. In one moment, the voiceover in “Dante” says, “A chronic condition that impairs movement.” The caption reads, “A chronic condition that a Paris movement.”

When I pointed this out to Justin Barasky, communications director for Priorities USA, he told me, “We have captions on a number of our ads, and a majority of our digital ads.” As near as I can tell, though, looking at the last dozen or so ads that they uploaded to YouTube over the last four weeks, only three are captioned by the organization, and all three use subtitles to put the words spoken by Trump onto the screen — here, here, and here. These rare occasions where there’s captioning don’t seem to have anything to do with improving accessibility. The awfulness of Trump’s words are part of the message, so the admakers seemingly decided to have the typical viewer read as well as listen. This is a far cry from making a choice to serve those who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

I asked Barasky why there were so few captions, whether they had thought about wooing Deaf voters for Clinton, whether any ads had audio descriptions (describing the images and actions on the screen to make it accessible to blind individuals), and how decisions are made on which ads become accessible and which ones do not. I also asked whether they consulted with experts in disability issues or disabled individuals at all, and whether this was comparable to how they make ads around other identity groups and their needs. In other words, do they ask women before making an ad about women? Do they ask Latinx individuals before making an ad about Latinx individuals?

Barasky responded, “We believe strongly that Donald Trump’s decision to mock someone with a disability is one of the many reasons that he’s too divisive and dangerous to ever be President of the United States. It’s our policy not to get into strategic decisions behind the production of our ads.”

It’s not just Priorities USA, of course. A disability-themed ad called “Kayla” released directly by the Clinton campaign — and featuring, as is typical, a white parent talking about her kid (and praising Clinton for helping to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the ‘90s) — lacks captions as well. Compare this, for example, to Barack Obama’s endorsement of Clinton, which has the words built right into the ad. Trump’s ads online are similar to Clinton’s, using captions to reinforce negative comments about his opponent, but not doing so as standard practice.

Why do captions matter? I reached out to a number of individuals who identify as Deaf, hard of hearing, or have auditory processing disorders. All of them want captions both for the specific accommodation and for their symbolic value.

Amber Smock, for example, the director of advocacy for the Chicago-area disability rights and services organization, Access Living, wondered, “Why would political campaigns leave their video messaging up to YouTube’s often terrible automatic captioning, when they have spent so much time and effort on messaging?” Smock identifies as Deaf, wears hearing aids, often uses sign language interpreters, and speaks for herself. She added, “Voters with hearing loss or aural comprehension issues are actually a significant portion of the U.S. public, and candidates should be as careful as possible to collect those votes.”

Ian Smith, a deaf/disabled activist and software engineer, told me over email:

“YouTube autocaptioning is unreliable at best — it is an interesting experiment, and has improved since its launch, but it is not appropriate for professionally produced content, with one exception. It can be used as a starting point, and cleaned up or corrected by the video owner. But by itself, uncurated and unsupervised, it cannot be depended upon for accessibility.”

Rebecca Raphael, a late-deafened academic, was more blunt:

“Auto-captioning is crap. The VR software is just not that good yet. Since auto-captions are usually part of the web platform rather than code built in by the maker, then I also make an inference about whether the candidate wants my vote. It doesn’t cost that much to include good captioning at the production stage.”

Smith agreed with Raphael’s assessment. He wrote that not only does a lack of captions tell him that candidates are ignoring disabled voters, it’s also just lazy. “Captioning is well-supported on every video platform a candidate might use, whether TV or YouTube,” he said. “The tech is there, the cost is not high, the effort is minimal; it’s simply a lack of caring, of having ‘captioning’ be a default part of the production process much like lighting, makeup, release forms, music. It’s a small detail that says a lot.”

Finally, I spoke to Scott Eric Kaufman, who not only is hard of hearing, but is a political reporter for Salon. He told me, “To disseminate ads without captions is a deliberate decision to exclude a huge swath of the electorate — not just young people like me who happen to be deaf, but basically anyone over 65 who is undergoing natural hearing degeneration. It’s strange, given the general demographics of voters, that candidates wouldn’t try to court the elderly, since they’re a much more reliable voting block.”

Captions are cheap, effective, and send a powerful message. Just as no English-language group would rely on Google Translate to reach out to Latinx communities, no one should use auto-caption to make their videos accessible.

The disability community is eager to be recognized. When you meet pretty low thresholds of accessibility — captions, sign-language, priority seating in accessible buildings — we notice and feel included. When you don’t, it doesn’t matter how often you talk about our issues, we know that you’re just using disability as a tool to generate sympathy among the non-disabled electorate. That’s just not good enough anymore.


Lead image: Pexels

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